Sunday, December 16, 2018

416-Fire Maidens of Outer Space

Film Year:  1956
Genre:  Science Fiction
Director:  Cy Roth
Starring:  Anthony Dexter, Paul Carpenter, Susan Shaw, Harry Fowler, Sidney Tafler, Jacqueline Curtis, Jan Holden, Rodney Diak
MST Season:  4

The Movie

An expedition to the thirteenth moon of Jupiter discovers a colony made by Atlantis, but the civilization is dying since there are only women left.  The astronauts save one of the women from a monster, and they are welcomed into the civilization, where it is hoped that the new men will save them from the beast and become their husbands.

Fire Maidens of Outer Space is written, produced, and directed by Cy Roth.  I'm surprised it's not starring Cy Roth as well, but maybe the man had enough on his plate.  Roth only directed three movies, with the other two being military based movies Combat Squad and Air Strike.  Apparently both are not a whole lot better than Fire Maidens.

While being a bit of a genre departure for Roth, Fire Maidens of Outer Space feels as if it's genre is incidental as it most likely was conceived as a male gaze fantasy.  It presents a "What if...?" scenario that's meant to entice men as we watch characters who are inserted into a tropical paradise fully of scantily clad women who are desperate for lovers.  If the premise of this movie had held off until the 70's or 80's it likely would have been the premise of a porn film.  In fact it probably is the premise of a porn film.  Or about fifty porn films.

All of this is to entice guys into theater seats as they create a fantasy in their heads that is more exciting than the film they're watching.  The titular Fire Maidens do a few alluring dances that are meant to show off their bodies, but there's nothing too titillating about these scenes (it is 50's cinema, after all).  But it becomes evident these scenes are the only reason the film was made, because the plotting is excessively padded, desperate to pump this underdeveloped film to 70 minutes.  This isn't even mentioning the cheapness of the film, with sets as simplified as possible and even a monster that's little more than a rubber mask and a sweater.

In the end, I've seen worse than this, though Fire Maidens of Outer Space isn't as endearing as it could be, especially when it's as campy and cheap as it is.  It's more or less a "whatever" of a bad movie rather than a memorable one.

The Episode

There is a dark force invading the Satellite of Love...a dark specter named Timmy has taken the form of Crow and creeping around.  Timmy initially acts like Crow's friend, but acts increasingly more hostile as the episode goes on:  attacking Cambot, telling Crow the wrong things to say, and messing with the controls to everything in existence.  The theater segments even get in on letting the story unfold as Timmy sneaks into the theater and sits in silence for most of the third theater segment, eventually attacking Tom Servo.  All of this leads to a host segment that parodies Aliens where Joel fights Timmy ("Get away from him, you bitch!") and blasts him out the airlock.  This is really one of the most enjoyable host segment arcs in the history of the show.

With all that's going outside of the theater it might be forgivable to forget that the riffing for this episode is actually pretty damn terrific.  It would be easy to fall short on a movie this padded, but Fire Maidens of Outer Space actually gives them more to work with than you'd think.  The Fire Maidens themselves alone make the episode, as the concept of this girl group sparks many riffs around sororities and cheerleaders.  If that sounds misogynistic to you then you haven't seen the movie, since they're simply playing off the film's misogyny in turn.  Even when the film pads itself beyond all reason the riffing finds new ways to turn it into an entertaining experience, having fun with the idea that the director is an "auteur" of some sort and embracing the padding as Cy Roth's vision.  And at other points they get frustrated with the film's slow pace and vent it out with sarcasm.  At no point was I ever bored with Fire Maidens, which is a miracle unto itself.

Also as a minor note of episode importance, the letter read at the end was written by a girl named Ashley, who compares Tom Servo to her brother.  Ashley grew up to be a musician and was invited by Joel to participate in the Kickstarter that helped relaunch the series during the 2015 Turkey Day as well as the concluding Kickstarter live telethon.

This is an episode that seems to delight me at every turn, as it gives me some of the best laughs in the entirety of the fourth season.  It's an episode that I believe all MSTies should have in their collection and keep in rotation often.  This episode is pure MST magic, with a perfectly cheesy movie, great riffing, and unforgettable host segments.  If you haven't seen it yet, make it the next episode on your list!



Fire Maidens of Outer Space is disappointingly one of the eleven unreleased episodes on home video.  It's very unfortunate because this is one episode that should be preserved for prosperity on home media, and it's probably the best of the unreleased eleven.  It's host segments were however compiled onto the Satellite Dishes disc of Shout Factory's Volume XXXIX set.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

624-Samson vs. the Vampire Women

Film Year:  1962
Genre:  Horror, Superhero, Sports
Director:  Alfonso Corona Blake
Starring:  EL SANTO!
MST Season:  6

The Movie

Samson vs. the Vampire Women is the first time we've seen a Mexican horror film on the show since Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy.


But it's also one that stars a Mexican wrestling legend!

::stops running::  I'm oddly intrigued.  Go on.

One of the most popular Lucha Libre wrestlers from Mexico, and probably the most popular honestly, was El Santo (roughly translated to English as The not Roger Moore or Val Kilmer).  He became such a phenomenon in the wildly popular sport he got his own series of movies where he was wrestler by day, crimefighting superhero by night.  There are a whopping fifty-two Santo movies out there, starting with Santo vs. the Evil Brain in 1961.  Samson vs. the Vampire Women is the seventh, released only a year later.  Boy did Mexico really love these movies.  It's like their Marvel Cinematic Universe or something.

Having his name changed to "Samson" for the English market, Samson vs. the Vampire Women has ancient vampire women being awakened after two hundred years, and their queen wishes to be reunited with her husband in Hell.  To do so they need a successor, and they choose the descendant of a woman who escaped them centuries ago.  Once the family catches wind of what is going on, Santo/Samson is enlisted to protect the young girl.

This movie is a very strange beast.  There are some horror shots that use great angels and shadow and could have been quite effective, and the movie is somewhat shockingly brutal at times, but it undercuts itself with several choices that just come off as goofy.  There's a shot or a moment that just doesn't fit in with the rest that gets an unintentional laugh, and it makes the virtues of the production seem lesser in hindsight.

Probably the biggest batch of silliness is Santo himself, who appears out of nowhere when the movie is halfway over.  Mexican audiences were expecting a masked shirtless man to walk in and take control of the situation way back when, but watching this movie without context of who Santo is makes the experience jarring and unintentionally hilarious.  There is no setup for Santo, nothing to prepare us for him, he just exists and the movie expects us to accept him.  As the film goes on, it becomes evident that despite how worshiped Santo is, he's not really all that good at his job of smiting evil.  He vows to protect a girl, then abandons her because he "has other plans," then almost gets her kidnapped because of it while several party guests are murdered, all because Santo didn't feel like being there that night.  He rushes in and saves the day at the end so...yay for Santo?  Not to mention in the climax Santo wins more out of sheer luck in that the vampire women failed to check their watches than out of actual skill.

Really the most heroic thing Santo does in this movie is wrestle a werewolf.  And yet, I can't really look away.  There's something oddly hypnotic about these Santo movies.  I kind of want to watch more of them.

The Episode

This entire episode is set up like a goodbye for Frank Conniff, who decided to part ways with the show (he would eventually cameo in Soultaker in season ten).  There's a moment of silence as a prologue to the episode, which is done with as much humor as you'd expect.  The host segments feature Torgo the White, a reincarnation of Torgo in a play on Lord of the Rings, who comes and whisks away Frank to Second Banana Heaven as a haven for all abused lackeys.  Frank mindlessly follows, and he really isn't in as much of the episode as you'd expect.

And yet, there is a lot of Frank's personality stamped across the episode.  The opening Chinese food sketch I believe is meant to be an homage to the Three Stooges, who Frank was a big fan of, with Mike struggling with his clam soup (similar to bits in Dutiful but Dumb, Shivering Sherlocks, and Income Tax Sappy) and Servo gets licked by his hot dog (similar to a scene in Malice in the Palace).  Though it should be noted that I believe that at the very least the clam soup bit was borrowed from another Columbia short that predates the Stooges' use of it.  The movie selection is also said to be one that Frank had been pushing for, but other writers weren't enthused about.  They decided to accept it as a "going away present" for him, replacing what was originally slated to be the season finale, Master Ninja III.

As much as we would like to drool about the idea of the show tackling another Master Ninja movie, what of the riff that we have?  Unfortunately it's average at best.  The movie on the surface seems so perfect for the show, but it's very belabored and dry.  The tone of the entire riff is upbeat, but they never really find a groove for it.  There is no symbiotic connection between the two that the best episodes have, and while occasionally there is a funny line, it's ultimately hard to pay attention to the riff in an episode where the movie is actually outshining it in interest value.  The best moment of the riff comes from Santo's first appearance, which is so sudden that they all start laughing and their sudden upswing in goofiness fuels the rest of the riffs in the scene and Santo's further appearances in the picture.  The problem is that now that we've all seen Santo, the shock of this scene doesn't play on rewatch value.  Every time I try to watch this episode again the Santo scenes are far less funny.  But boy did I laugh that first time.

I'm not convinced the episode is a total loss.  There are moments that still work (Santo torching the vampire women at the end is still really funny) and while the host segments are more witty than funny, they're memorable.  Dr. Forrester's song "Who Shall I Kill?" is a highlight, and the episode brings us almost to tears as Frank pushes the button one last time.  We'll miss you, Frank.  I would have hoped for a funnier sendoff than this, but it's one that's distinctly you.  I guess that's what matters.



This tearjerker of an episode was brought to us in Shout Factory's Volume XXIII set, with good audio and slightly flawed video.

Headlining the special features is a mini-documentary called Lucha Gringo:  K. Gordon Murray Meets Santo.  For the most part this is more a documentary on the Lucha Libre wrestling culture in Mexico and how it transitioned into being something of a superhero lore in media.  There is not a lot about K. Gordon Murray in it until the end, though it discusses a little bit of his fascination with these cult oddities from Mexico.  Even Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy is brought up at one point.

And since this is Frank's last episode, it's only fitting that there be a Life After MST3K:  Frank Conniff featurette.  Frank discusses his various writing gigs over the years, including Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Invader Zim, and The Drew Carey Show.  He also discusses Cinematic Titanic a little bit, and expresses his enjoyment of working on his own projects like Cartoon Dump.

There is also a TV spot for the movie.

Friday, December 14, 2018

"Terror on High..." (MST3K Comics)

Issue Number:  3
Release Date:  December 12th, 2018
Adapted From:  Johnny Jason, Teen Reporter #2; Black Cat Comics #1; Horrific #2
Original Publication Dates:  July/August 1962, June/July 1946, November 1952

Tom Servo, Jonah, and Crow are all trapped in three separate comic books and Kinga has her henchman Ardy create a lever that allows her to switch between the three.  She then switches the comic between Tom Servo's reporter tale, Jonah getting caught up in superheroics, and Crow's spooky anthology stories.

First up we check back in with Tom Servo in his issue of Johnny Jason right where we left off two issues ago.  Servo wakes up after that rowdy party and learns more about the actress with whom he is staying with/reporting on/wanting to "tap dat ass."  Her crazy party ways leave him uneasy, but she leads him on a tour of her country home and she takes him on a ride in her plane.  Unfortunately she runs out of fuel (because why would you check the fuel before takeoff, that's such an inconvenience) and the duo are forced to crash land.


We then check in on Jonah, and he's currently captured by supervillains and one Black Cat runs into their hideout to rescue him.  She beats up the bad guys and saves the day.  That tale concludes right there.

Switching over to Crow's scary tales, his new story features two lost climbers in the Alps taken in by a monastery for food and shelter.  The monks tell them stories of the frozen bodies they've found of lost travelers that they keep in the cellar, and the treasures they hold.  Being assholes, the two climbers beat up the monks and loot the bodies, escaping into the cold mountain.  Oh crap, they forgot they were lost!  They seek shelter but find themselves followed by the frozen corpses brought back to life, who want their treasure back.

We're three issues in and I am holding MST Comics with more confidence than ever, as each issue has given me some solid laughs.  Even though I wasn't crazy about the previous issue as a whole, that Crow story "Tail of Death" is still the bar in which I find myself judging these things.  Nothing in this new issue stacks up to that story.  Even another Horrific tale hosted by Crow, the idea of which had me salivating at the mouth, just wasn't as memorable as the shrinking man story.

There is an fault to these comics that I feel is holding them back though, and it's that they feel a tad too jumbled.  This third issue is more consistent than the second, but it has a similar flaw in by juggling too many stories it largely feels like too much is going on at once and so many short shifted stories make it feel unsatisfying in the long run.  This is one of the reasons why the first issue is still my favorite, because it told one story from beginning to end.  While that story wasn't concluded, I got more invested in the whole ordeal.  Here we spend so little time in each story that we switch before I can fully get into them.  When this run is over I might just have to read each story section from beginning to end without switching to a different one to see if they work better as a whole that way.

The one plus side is that the Jonah story has a conclusion here, and Crow's magazine is just a series of short stories, which always have a conclusion.  Meanwhile Servo's Johnny Jason story is still going and barely makes any progress.  It's mildly frustrating since Servo's is the story that kicked off this comic series.  But based on the time periods these comics came out I'm probably going to assume Johnny Jason's issues featured full length stories from cover to cover while books like Black Cat had multiple stories per issue (and that Black Cat likely had more pages, meaning there are probably more tales in that issue), so it's going to take longer to tell that story.

The saving grace of MST Comics is that they're reliably funny.  While Crow's story doesn't come close to his from the previous issue, it's still the highlight of the book, with some grand macabre humor.  Kinga and Max also manage to work in their Totino's ad into his story, and Crow's resulting temper tantrum is a goldmine of laughs.

"My comic will not be turned into a den of corporate sponsorship!  Unless I get some sorta residuals!"

Jonah's Black Cat story also made me laugh a bit, which surprised me because his story in the previous issue was the lowlight of the MST Comic so far.  But while it's still a bit of a cluttered mess, I felt the humor was more spot-on than in the previous issue.  I especially liked the line "It's Black Cat!  And she's recreating the splash page from the beginning of the comic!  Why didn't I see this coming?"

And remember, folks at home, there is just no cool way to land on your butt.

That leaves Servo in Johnny Jason.  There's not a whole lot to say because barely anything happens.  There are a few laughs and I was happy to check in on him, but I would have liked just a little bit more, you know?  Ultimately issue three of MST Comics is a bit like one of those serialized episodes in any sort of TV show that just barely moves along enough to keep you from not watching the next episode, but in retrospect you realize maybe it's just padding itself out.  Good thing it's funny enough to recommend.


Thursday, December 13, 2018

802-The Leech Woman

Film Year:  1960
Genre:  Horror
Director:  Edward Dein
Starring:  Grant Williams, Colleen Gray, Phillip Terry, Gloria Talbot, John van Dreelan, Estelle Hemsley, Kim Hamilton, Arthur Batanides
MST Season:  8

The Movie


Season eight's Universal International invasion continues with what was likely the final horror film the studio made in black and white, marking the end of an era.  Quickly filmed to be latched onto a double feature with the vastly superior Hammer film they acquired, Brides of Dracula, The Leech Woman is almost a reworked version of The Wasp Woman.

In this movie an elderly lady asks a scientist to escort her back to Africa before she dies, promising the secret of reversing the aging process.  The greedy doctor takes his aging wife in hopes it will turn her beautiful again.  There they find a ritual in which the lady kills a man with a ring and uses his spinal fluid to become young again, as a celebration of their life before they pass on.  The wife is offered the same chance chooses her husband as her sacrifice, killing him and turning young again in the process.  But the de-aging is only temporary, and as she returns to the States she much continually murder men in order to stay young.

It's not entirely an uninteresting concept, but The Leech Woman is a waste.  It's screenplay is underdeveloped and there are a few logic holes that need to be ironed out.  Setpieces are belabored as scenes go on forever, while the horror is not as pronounced as it should be.  Once one finds out this movie is a rush job it makes perfect sense.  Nothing about The Leech Woman has any drive to it.  It's just an idea, and nobody cared what they did with it.

It's sad that this was the last gasp of Universal's dwindling classic horror legacy.  They still dipped their toes in the genre after this, notably three years later with Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, but they never had that same output, that determination to make it a continuing legacy.  The Leech Woman isn't a fitting sendoff.  It's the defecation of a corpse's bowels.

The Episode

The sophomore episode of the Sci-Fi era finds us with a movie that's much worse than the previous, but the riffing is far more consistent.  The Leech Woman stays pretty hilarious it's entire runtime, with some great stabs at character quirks.  They have some great fun early on when the wife is portrayed as a drunk ("Oh, I'm sorry.  I was going to get you a drink but I got held up at the bar."), and her jerk husband gets a broad load of jokes about his personality as well.  When the second act revs up in Africa they get some new material to play with and make the most of it.  They have a grand time pointing out stock footage vs. stage footage ("Real Africa...HOLLYWOOD AFRICA!"), while the ritual sacrifice is a bloody hoot ("I choose Adam Sandler!").  The movie switches gears again for the finale, where it turns into a bit of a slasher movie.  Only the killer is a grandma who turns young to seduce every man in sight.  You do the math on how funny this is, but that's an equation worth solving!

Probably the one big riffing walkaway is that this is the episode where Tom Servo does his Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies impersonation, and whenever an elderly woman is onscreen he screams "Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed!"  This run-on joke runs straight into a highlighting final host segment in which he holds Mike and Crow at gunpoint in order to do a Beverly Hillbillies sketch.  Other sketches have the Nanites on strike, Crow trying to rid the SOL of prairie dogs (don't ask), and the Bots trying to get Mike's sweet pineal juice out of his neck.  In Deep Ape, Bobo and Peanut de-evolve for a spell by putting on diapers and rollicking around and Pearl tries to live up to the Lawgiver name.  They're certainly having fun with the Planet of the Apes parody this week, I'll give them that.

The Leech Woman smooths out the rough edges of the new Mystery Science Theater and runs with it, proving the crew still has it in them to do an episode this hilarious.  Even if Revenge of the Creature left you indifferent, I think this episode is well worth a look to see if the Sci-Fi era can win you over.  And they're just getting started, because there are plenty of super episodes left in the series.



The Leech Woman hit DVD as a part of Shout Factory's 25th Anniversary Edition release.  Audio was good, video was slightly flawed but not overly bothersome.

The third and final chapter of Return to Eden Prairie is on this disc, this one is a hefty half hour long and focuses on the various characters and performers on the show.  Joel, Trace, Kevin, Mary Jo, and Jim all discuss both their main characters and the performers around them, how they were conceived and developed.  The topic also stems to guest characters, as crew members Beez McKeever and Patrick Brantseg both discuss their various guest spots on the show, including fan favorites Steffi the Babysitter, Pitch, and Ortega.

Also here is Life After MST3K:  Mary Jo Pehl, a look at Mary Jo's post MST career.  It includes small tidbits about her books, Rifftrax, Cinematic Titanic, and being "1 Across" in a TV Guide crossword puzzle.

Also included is a theatrical trailer.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


Film Year:  1975
Genre:  Action, Crime, Drama, Comedy
Director:  Andrew V. MacLaglen
Starring:  Joe Don Baker IS Martha Mitchell!!!  Linda Evans, Martin Balsam, John Saxon
MST Season:  5

The Movie


After a disagreement with his boss, beerhound cop Mitchell is reassigned to keep watch over suspected drug dealer named Cummings.  While Mitchell is hardly subtle in his stakeouts, Cummings does whatever he can to get Mitchell off his tail.  But when Mitchell proves to be less keen to bribes (including money and prostitutes) than he looks, Cummings tries deadlier means.  But Mitchell vows to bring Cummings down.

Okay.  ::inhales deeply::  Folks, grab your torches and pitchforks because I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that bad...

::runs away::

Hear me out here, this is not an endorsement of the film, which still isn't good.  There is a lot that's said in the community about how Mitchell is supposed to be a badass like Dirty Harry and the like but Joe Don Baker doesn't fit the type and he comes off as a fat, lazy slob who acts like a jerk.  I've had many years to digest this movie and I feel my interpretation of Mitchell is much different.  The character of Mitchell is supposed to be a slob.  He's supposed to be a jerk.  That's kind of the joke of the movie, because it takes these tropes that are made to fit one type of character and it inserts Mitchell into it.  Mitchell's the last type of cop you'd expect to be effective, as he's a brash, loud, hungover asshole, but despite all of that he does his job well.  What's interesting to me about this movie is that in movies like this cops like Mitchell are often portrayed as "on the take," but Mitchell is straight as an arrow and almost incorruptible.  People attempt to bribe him at various points in the movie and he always turns them down flat and/or laughs in their face because they have the wrong idea of him based on what the cliche of his character is.  The only real illegal indulgence he partakes in is a prostitute played by Linda Evans, which he does a one-eighty on and arrests her when he finds that she has brought drugs into his apartment.

The idea of Mitchell himself is actually kind of brilliant, and say what you will about Joe Don Baker but he's actually really good in the role (no seriously, watch his performance, he plays Mitchell to a tee).  The movie around him however is fairly poorly made.

The production of the film itself feels really low rent, with not a lot of energy to get from one point to another.  It seems that instead of providing something exciting in their cop movie the filmmakers are fairly content with humiliating Mitchell however they can.  This drifts the film more into comedy territory than I think most people consider it (especially considering how brutal that last act is), as each scene usually ends with a goofy tune as Mitchell is just the butt of some joke.  The jokes aren't really ha-ha funny though, but rather an eye-roll kind of funny because our hero is somehow competent but somehow incompetent at the same time.  The attempt at balance between the two works against the film in the long run.

The finale of the film finally brings some action on, with some dune buggies (including one more scene with John Saxon which was deleted from the MST version) and a helicopter chasing a boat, but the action doesn't quite swell in the climax the way the film intends it too.  It just looks cheap, and Mitchell wears it's "budget production" status on its sleeve.  I think Mitchell could work as a character, but the movie just doesn't let him shine.

The Episode

I've probably reached a point in my life in which I could review the episode of Mitchell without viewing the episode beforehand.  It's probably one of the most viewed episodes of the entire series for me (I don't know, I'm not keeping count).  Hell, there was a point when I was a teenager when it was the only MST tape I had available and I watched it five times in a single day.  I didn't have a lot going on back then.  These days it often seems like setting aside enough time to watch a single episode can lead to chaos.

This is the famous episode where Joel escapes from the Satellite of Love, amusingly he does so obliviously as well.  In these host segments Gypsy misinterprets a message from the Mads and believes they desire to kill Joel (which they probably do, but not yet), when they're really talking about their new temp, Mike Nelson.  Gypsy spends the segments scheming to smuggle Joel off the SOL before discovering via Mike that there was an escape pod on the Satellite all along in a box marked "Hamdingers."  And thus at the end of the episode Joel is sent flying back to Earth, with a tearful goodbye by quoting The Circus of Dr. Lau.  The segments are astonishingly well done, telling a fairly complete story with the lean amount of time they're given and there is not a wasted minute.  Except maybe the Invention Exchange.  Daktari Stool?

Mitchell seems like a bizarre movie choice for an episode at all, let alone Joel's final, because the film is at least partially a comedy.  Strangely enough the movie lends itself to the riffing format beautifully, as the failed comedic bits are played up and built into much funnier bits by Joel and the Bots through their enhanced version of the Mitchell character, turning him from just a lazy pig into the lovable burping and farting action hero icon of the series.  Because Mitchell himself is built on a comedic idea Joel and the Bots extend their interpretation of him into the points where the movie is trying to be serious, and it's some of their funniest work.  The riff of Mitchell is wondrous to behold because looking at the film by itself it shouldn't work, but they found a magical door into making it a series highlight.

"Hearts poundin'!"
"Veins cloggin'!"

And after over one hundred episodes Joel bids farewell to the series he created and passes the baton to Mike Nelson, and it's bittersweet because I love the Mike era as well.  Joel as a character would return for a guest spot on Soultaker, while Joel would later play the character of Ardy in the relaunch seasons (as well as several guest spot characters), so this isn't exactly goodbye, but I'm going to miss the sleepy-eyed bastard.  But he can rest easy knowing he went out with a bang.



Mitchell was a single released by Rhino Home Video in their early days, because every MSTie wants Mitchell!  The audio and video were good, while the only special feature was a trailer for the film.

Shout Factory eventually re-released the episode in the 25th Anniversary Edition collection, where it was featured on a double feature disc with the following episode of The Brain that Wouldn't Die.  Audio and video were mostly fine (there are a few video flaws), while bonus features relating to both episodes were presented.  The first is Last Flight of Joel Robinson, in with Joel, Trace, and Kevin reflect on the making of Mitchell and what was going through their minds at the time.  The second is a five minute interview with Marilyn (Hanold) Neilson, who played a beauty pageant contestant in Brain that Wouldn't Die.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume 1 DVD Retrospective

Release Date:  November 12, 2002
Re-release Date:  September 1, 2015

Buy Rhino set here!
Buy Shout Factory set here!

Episodes Featured:
Catalina Caper
The Skydivers

Rhino Home Video had released about ten episodes in singles on DVD, but at the time complete season collections were becoming all the rage, with seasons of Star Trek:  The Next Generation, The X-Files, and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer bringing in about a hundred bucks a pop upon original release.  Single episode home media releases were going out of style, but Mystery Science Theater 3000 wasn't exactly in a position to evolve into complete sets.  Due to the complicated nature of licensing the films (and the fact that the films were never licensed for home media release, which meant they had to be licensed all over again) complete seasons were not really in the cards.

Rhino's solution was to create grab bag box sets that mix up a variety of four episodes from different points in the series.  It's not the ideal solution, as it was still a pretty hefty price for each.  It was still somewhat cheaper than singles, as the singles averaged about $20 while box sets ran about $60, meaning fans would be saving about $20 per set.  In the long run it worked, as the volume release would become the status quo until the advanced licensing agreements of the relaunch series finally made complete seasons possible.

This first set was made up of episodes that were left over from the VHS days and hadn't yet been released on disc, which Rhino would run through before finally licensing new films in Volume 4.  It's notable that the bulk of episodes come from a cluster in early season six, which I personally find interesting because the sixth season was fairly underrepresented in the long run of these sets.  Five of the seven slots in the last two box sets alone were reserved for sixth season episodes, but one wouldn't know that would happen by this initial volume, which features three episodes from the neglected season.  Of those episodes, Bloodlust is easily my favorite, while The Creeping Terror is a respectable second.  The Skydivers is pretty good, though I don't often favor it over other episodes.  The sole Joel episode of the set is season two's Catalina Caper, which has it's fans but I've personally never been won over by it.  It's the one blemish in a mostly pretty good set.

Average Rating (out of 4):  2.75

The set was originally issued in 2002 by Rhino.  Video and audio were excellent across the board.  Special features included uncut films for all four episodes, which is something I wish more releases did.  There were also trailers for Catalina Caper, Bloodlust, and The Skydivers as well.

The box art for this is rather strange, as the outer case is like something out of a pop-up book.  There is an MST logo in the middle of the case and a little window above it.  On the side of the set there is a disc that you can spin that shows off a different character, each of which says something different.  Joel says "The only difference between Catalina Caper and Titanic is talent."  Tom Servo says "He's going to make some of his famous toe jam!"  Mike says "Seems like they forgot to make something happen in this movie!"  Crow says "No shoes.  No shirt.  No script."  TV's Frank says "Don't look at me!  I said NEVER look at me!!"  Dr. Forrester says "The Creeping Terror - I just KNOW you'll hate it!"  In the upper left hand corner there is also a little rocketship that says "Volume 1" on it, and to the right side of the box there is a tab that can make it move.  Unfortunately my little rocket fell off of my copy years ago.

Opening the set up you'll find very similar art on the interior fold out, with the logo centered but in this case the characters are all placed around it (along with Gypsy).  The Volume 1 rocket is placed in the upper middle of the very top.  Opening the foldout further you'll find a pair of promotional photos on the right flap, one featuring Mike and the Bots and another featuring Joel and the Bots, though Joel's is upside down.  The left flap just has a rocket and a promotional pamphlet.  Open both of these flaps to find the discs, each of which is housed in front of a photo of one of the theater doors.  The discs themselves are double sided, which means they have no art.  Oddly enough the discs are numbered, but the order seems to be entirely random.  It's not in episode production order, like most box sets, nor is it in alphabetical order like the cover.  The disc number order is The Skydivers, The Creeping Terror, Bloodlust, and Catalina Caper.

The disc menus are simple.  Catalina Caper has cartoon fish like the opening credits, while footage from the movie plays in a little from on the right center.  The reverse side with the uncut film just has stills from the movie in ovals.  The Creeping Terror features the title monster trying to eat Tom Servo.  The reverse side with the uncut film features stills from the film, including a screaming man and a woman and the Terror behind them.  Bloodlust features an ocean with a very animated island that has skulls and palm trees.  The reverse side with the uncut film has the title image of a skull and a hand with stills from the movie over it.  The Skydivers has Servo and Crow flying biplanes and clips from the movie playing on a little radar screen.  The reverse side with the uncut film just features stills from the movie, featuring a plane and skydivers.  As was the norm for Rhino, each episode menu featured the theater doors leading up to it and had Joel and the Bots sitting in the theater seats at the bottom, regardless of whether it was a Joel or a Mike episode.  The one exception is The Creeping Terror, where Servo is absent (because he is being devoured).

Shout Factory eventually reissued the set thirteen years later, this time in a simple DVD case much different than the ones they had been doing.  Catalina Caper, The Creeping Terror, and Skydivers all looked and sounded good, though Bloodlust has a few tape flaws.  All of the uncut films had been dropped as bonuses, though the trailers remained.  New bonus features included a documentary called The Crown Jewels, which chronicled Crown International Pictures.  Also here is a trailer for The Creep Behind the Camera, a docudrama on the making of The Creeping Terror.  There is also a Q&A for The Creep Behind the Camera which features Trace and Frank in attendance.

It was a tad bit of a disappointment as unlike those releases there were no individual poster art for each episode (and honestly some of the classics Rhino released deserved some), but as a reissue sales were anticipated to be fairly low so fans who missed out on Rhino sets were lucky they got the set at all.  The box art was simple, featuring the MST logo in the upper center against a starry backdrop with the theater silhouettes at the bottom.  This would be standard for future reissue sets.  Unlike the Rhino set these do feature disc art, however it's just the episode title against a starry backdrop.  Unlike other Shout sets the episode titles aren't in any stylized font, which would also be the norm for reissues.

What is unique about this set compared to other reissues is that it has custom menus for each episode, of which all other reissues just used a stock menu for each episode.  Catalina Caper features cardboard waves, a background of aged parchment, and stills from the episode.  The Creeping Terror is above a water body, with stenciled squares spinning in a circle.  Bloodlust features a lagoon in the backdrop, with a skull above a circular map in the center.  The Skydivers features Tom Servo skydiving above the clouds.

As far as box sets go, this first volume is pretty solid.  The Mike episodes alone make the set worth buying, though if you're one of the die hard Catalina Caper fans out there you'll no doubt definitely want to get your hands on this set.  Is there any reason to be reluctant?  Not really, just a debate on whether you should seek out an out of print Rhino set or a reissue by Shout.  If you would prefer a better video presentation or enjoy watching the movies without the commentary, the Rhino set is the one for your shelf.  But if you enjoy trivia about the studios that make the films or would prefer a cheaper option, the in-print Shout Factory set is the way to go.  But either way it's a win, because it's Mystery Science Theater.

609-The Skydivers

Film Year:  1963
Genre:  Drama
Director:  Coleman Francis
Starring:  Kevin Casey, Eric Tomlin, Tony Cardoza, Marcia Knight, Titus Moede
MST Season:  6
Featured Short:  "Why Study Industrial Arts"

The Short

"You know, it's fun to have an idea..."
"There, wasn't that fun?"

This little instructional short was likely shown as introductions to industrial arts or as some sort of tool in order to help teenagers decide what courses to take that encourages an industrial arts course.  It tells of a boy with a woody for shop (heh heh, I'm funny) who discusses why the class could help prepare anybody for future careers and/or homelife.

The points in this short are hard to argue with the points that are made, as it does an adequate job of relaying the handiness in having good hands and tools in the future.  Though the short itself is one of those poor presentations of a stilted discussion that pretty much no teenager would ever have, where one lectures about proper preparation and etiquette while the other listens attentively and "Ya know, you're right!" at the end.

Maybe I'm just salty because I slept through my industrial arts course and have been learning shit like this the hard way ever since.

The Movie


And thus we are finally introduced to Mystery Science Theater 3000's favorite auteur, Coleman Francis.  Apparently Frank Conniff "discovered" his films when researching movies for the sixth season and decided we needed to do them all in one go.  I think I speak for everyone when I say through gritted teeth "Thhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnnks, Frank."

The Skydivers was Francis's second film, and it's arguably the best.  And by best I mean the most competently made.  And by most competently made I mean least incompetently made.  The thing we'll need to get used to with Coleman Francis is sloppy editing, ugly camerawork, and poor acting.  But the one thing Skydivers has over Beast of Yucca Flats is synchronized sound, and the one thing it has over Red Zone Cuba is coherence.  Skydivers feels like a real movie, more or less, though it's storyline barely exists and the film feels like an excuse to watch skydiving sequences.  Apparently Francis thought those scenes were exciting enough that he didn't bother having an interesting story or characters.

But what of the story here?  Skydivers has a couple who run a little skydiving business on an airfield and wind up pissing off another couple off who then plot revenge by sabotaging a parachute.  That's pretty much it.  Occasionally there is something about an alluded affair or someone plummeting to their death through their own stupidity, but it never seems to have much bearing on anything.  Skydivers is an aimless movie that really isn't about much.  It's just an excuse to film skydiving.  And it certainly does that.  Yes indeed.  No doubt about it.

Actually come to think of it maybe Skydivers isn't Francis's best movie.  At least his other movies tried to be about something, and while they lacked competence they at least tried to have a narrative.  Skydivers may in the end be the least painful of Francis's lineup because it's the least ambitious, but for my money his other trainwrecks are more interesting to watch.

The Episode

"We've been waiting the whole movie for a skydiving scene and now it's here!"

The Skydivers is a very dull movie, which can lead to a disastrous riff if our boys aren't careful.  But the thing about a Coleman Francis film is that they're so haphazardly edited together with random shots that there is usually always a new image onscreen to spark a riff or two.  Some of the best riffs of the episode are just of random closeups of extras as Mike and the Bots shout out the right line at just the right moment.  It goes all the way through the end credit cast list, where the trio have already left the theater and suddenly Tom Servo blurts out one line that takes the viewer completely by surprise just before the theater doors close.  The bit never gets old, and it pretty much makes the episode in general.  Also under fire are inane plot developments ("Sex for sundries is fun!") and the strange ways Francis chooses to pad out the film ("I like coffee!").  When it comes to the cumbersome skydiving scenes the episode does run a risk of being stale with repetitiveness, but somehow the riff makes them work with constantly solid humor work.

"I still like this movie better than Top Gun.  A lot better."

That's not all, because the episode opens with a grade-A short, where some fabulous riffs are nailing this educational tool back and crafting something more useful out of it.  There is especially a fetishistic tone in the room, as they take the main character's love of industrial arts and makes it so very dirty.  Riffing on teens in these films is always a hoot, because acting is usually robotic and Why Study Industrial Arts is no exception.  Because of the lack of personality being displayed they can project whichever personality they desire onto them, and most of the time a laugh riot will result.

"This is the film the boys got to watch while the girls got to go to the gym and watch 'the other film.'"

Satellite News points out that the host segments of this episode are a series of "indignities" for Crow, which is something I've never noticed before but they're right.  Our segments feature the golden bot being sawed in half, stuck in a "double-jock-lock," and being blown up by Servo.  It's actually a pretty fun arc of chaotic nonsense.  The episode is led by a swing choir contest between the Mads and the SOL crewm  While I didn't think the songs themselves were all that funny, I enjoyed Dr. Forrester's judgment of the contest and Frank's reaction to winning.  Servo also puts on a planetarium show that Crow turns into a Uranus joke.

The Skydivers could have easily plummeted to the ground like several characters in the movie, but somehow the riffing acts as the parachute that glides this thing safely to the ground.  I'm pretty sure I've always thought of this episode fondly, though I always seem to underestimate it when I watch it because it always feels like that movie is going to blindside me.  Luckily it's just funny, and that's all I can ask for.



The Skydivers dropped in Rhino's Volume 1 collection, featuring solid video and audio.  Bonus features included an uncut version of the feature film, for masochists who prefer their Coleman Francis unfiltered through MST.  There is also a trailer for the film.

Years later Shout Factory reissued Volume 1, with a similar transfer.  The uncut feature was dropped, but the trailer was retained.

Why Study Industrial Arts was a part of the Shorts Volume 1 compilation, complete with an introduction by Tom Servo.  This disc was featured in Rhino's Volume 2 collection, which was also released by Shout Factory.